The Pilgrim Four Hundredth
Commemorating Four Centuries of Mayflower Heritage in 2020
by D. Brenton Simons
A 10-foot model of the Mayflower, a permanent exhibit outside the NEHGS.
Throughout the year 2020, the eyes of the world will turn to the legendary saga of the Mayflower, her some 108 identified passengers and crew, and their 66-day voyage as the 400th anniversary of the arrival of that vessel on American shores is commemorated through high-profile events in the United States, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands, and in cooperation with the Wampanoag Nation.
According to various estimates, up to 10% of all living Americans—some 20 to 35 million people—can trace their ancestry to a Mayflower passenger, although the vast majority of these descendants are unaware of their family connections to the Pilgrims. For all Americans, whether they are descended from a Pilgrim or not, the epic story of the Separatists and their compatriots is critical to understanding early American history, the democratic nature of our government, and the tradition of Thanksgiving, a celebration derived from the harvest festival in early Plymouth Colony. The importance of the Mayflower Compact, and its formative role in our democracy, will be a focus of 2020 and form a central part of the commemorations in all three countries.
Just as the Pilgrim story influenced our national identity in the aforementioned ways, it is also enshrined in the worlds of art, prose, and music—from the folkloric “Courtship of Miles Standish” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to the whimsical “Anything Goes” by Cole Porter:
Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans* got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
Any shock they should try to stem
‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.
*Porter erred in calling the Pilgrims “Puritans,” rather than “Separatists.”
In 2020, histories of the oft-called “Saints and Strangers” who settled at Plymouth will be recounted; greater access to the genealogies of millions of Americans will be provided, including sources for some of the most socially prominent families in America; and in this anniversary year Americans will learn about valiant men, women, and children who experienced great privations and untold hardships to forge new lives in a new land—William Bradford, William Brewster, John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, Edward Winslow, Myles Standish, Mary Chilton, John Howland, Richard Warren, Peregrine White, and many others. Likewise, commemorative activities will also examine the impact of the settling of New England upon indigenous populations, especially the Wampanoag nation, in new ways and through other eyes.
D. Brenton Simons, CEO of the NEHGS, makes remarks at the opening ceremony of the April 17, 2019 Boston Commemoration of the Mayflower 2020 400th Anniversary, pictured with Christopher C. Child in Pilgrim attire. Credit: Pierce Harman
In addition to commemorative events to be held in 2020, groundbreaking scholarship will be published on Pilgrim history (including a new edition of Governor William Bradford’s history Of Plimoth Plantation), exclusive lineage sources will be made available online, and tours will be guided by leading historians and genealogists in the “Pilgrim Trail”—from Provincetown on Cape Cod, site of the first landing of the Pilgrims, to Boston. Other tours will visit historic locations in England and The Netherlands, for those wishing to learn more about the story of the Separatists, their struggles for freedom, and all the individuals and families of the Mayflower who helped forge new opportunities in America and shape our nation in significant ways.
A host of organizations, museums, cultural centers, and lineage societies are involved in 2020 commemorative events, and several are taking the lead in sponsoring activities around this historic milestone, including, most especially, the nation’s founding genealogical institution: AmericanAncestors.org, known widely as the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), in Boston (which, coincidentally, will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2020). Today, this nonprofit organization provides genealogical coverage of the entire country for more than 260,000 members with 1.4+ billion records online. It assists Americans of all backgrounds in learning about their ancestry, with services ranging from research for hire to publishing impeccably produced, bespoke family histories. The creation of this institution almost two hundred years ago has allowed for countless millions of Americans to explore their heritage in ways not possible elsewhere and, as a result, its work has forever influenced the way people see history and themselves.
Wampanoag Nation dancers perform at New England Historic Genealogical Society’s April 17, 2019 event launching the 400th Anniversary Commemoration of the Mayflower landing. Credit: Pierce Harman
Founded in 1845, the Society’s first member was John Quincy Adams, a descendant of Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, and today the New England Historic Genealogical Society maintains a world-class research center in Boston and serves as a research partner to, and anchor location of, the popular PBS television series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (The Society’s connections with the Social Register Association are considerable. On Thursday, October 4, 2018, the organization hosted a cocktail reception for Boston-area members of the Social Register Association in its oak-paneled Treat Rotunda in Boston’s historic Back Bay. Serving as hosts were NEHGS President and CEO D. Brenton Simons, Board Chairman Mrs. Allen F. Maulsby (Geist—Nancy L. Sands), and immediate past Board Chairman David H. Burnham.)
In June 2019, the New England Historic Genealogical Society led a tour, on which members of the Social Register Association were invited, to the Netherlands: “The Pilgrim Escape to Leiden,” where a small group of guests and invited VIPs learned about the Pilgrim flight to Amsterdam in 1608 and their subsequent move to Leiden in 1609. Visiting locations associated with the Pilgrims, the group learned about their lives there, and, ultimately, the Pilgrim departure from Delftshaven to Southampton on the Speedwell in 1620, and then their transfer to, and departure on, the Mayflower. In 2020, when NEHGS will offer an exclusive tour in England, where the group will visit Plymouth and other Pilgrim-related sites.
In April 2020, NEHGS and the Social Register Association will host a dinner gala in Boston for former UK Prime Minister The Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH to commence the 400th anniversary commemorations (more details to be announced soon). Other dignitaries will include the Earl and Countess of Devon, patrons of Mayflower 400, a UK-based partner.
Visitors at the Origins and Legacy of the Mayflower Exhibit at NEHGS. Credit: Pierce Harman
Among the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s most notable 2020 activities are the development of Mayflower-themed resources at AmericanAncestors.org, including free public access to detailed biographies of all known Mayflower passengers and crew members; an online gallery of present-day descendants, who may submit their own photographs and stories; and, for NEHGS members, use of lineage materials developed in an exclusive collaboration with the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD). Another major online resource being developed for 2020 in a partnership between NEHGS, GSMD, and FamilySearch, will make available a wealth of lineage information to those who are experiencing a new or renewed interest in identifying and verifying their genealogical relationships to the Mayflower Pilgrims. It will provide unprecedented access to some 100,000 lineage applications of accepted GMSD members—along with more than a million supporting documents. These applications, which date from 1896, offer a veritable treasure trove of verified research on Mayflower descendants. AmericanAncestors.org will present images of applications—from submitters born at least 100 years ago—and all supporting documentation. Each application includes a four-page form listing the applicant’s lineage from a Mayflower passenger ancestor, as well as supporting materials that prove the line of descent. The material will be made searchable and include names, dates, and relationships, so researchers will be able to make connections to recent generations of Mayflower descendants.
One of the leading international sponsors of 2020 commemorations is Plymouth 400 (www.Plymouth400inc.org), a not-for-profit formed in Massachusetts to lead the planning and execution of 400th anniversary commemorations. It has brilliantly organized the efforts of numerous partnering organizations, including Plimoth Plantation, the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, Pilgrim Hall Museum, and many others, for a series of signature events in 2020 exemplifying themes of exploration, innovation, religious freedom, self-governance, immigration, and thanksgiving. The Mayflower II, which has undergone a multi-million-dollar restoration, will sail to Boston Harbor for “Mayflower Sails” events in the spring of 2020 and, over the course of the anniversary year, be explored by tens of thousands of visitors. Serving as an iconic centerpiece of the 2020 commemorations, this vessel is a full-scale reproduction of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America. A smaller model of the original Mayflower is on view at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. Also scheduled by Plymouth 400 are an international opening ceremony on April 24, 2020, in Plymouth, MA; a ceremony at the State House in Boston on September 14, 2020; and, in the autumn of 2020, an indigenous history conference and powwow in Bridgewater, MA, that will “address the legacy of the colonization experienced by Wampanoag and other Native people.”
For all Americans, this commemoration provides an opportunity to examine our early history, better understand a root of our democracy, and provide avenues for learning more about the lives and times of all our ancestors, whatever their origins. The moving story of the Pilgrims will offer inspiration and pride, and for families, including many of those in the Social Register Association, this quadricentennial anniversary will speak to traditions and values of a special heritage we hold dear.
Some Prominent Mayflower Descendants
Being descended from a Mayflower passenger has long been a source of pride to many families, and the Pilgrims are found among the ancestors of socially prominent Americans, including many members of the Social Register Association, and historical figures.
New York Mayflower descendants include brothers Nelson A. Rockefeller and David Rockefeller; Society leader Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish; Louis Comfort Tiffany; John Hay Whitney; Harry Payne Whitney, husband of Gertrude Vanderbilt; J.P. Morgan, Jr., and his son, Henry Sturgis Morgan (founder of Morgan Stanley); and the Cushing sisters, originally of Boston: Barbara “Babe” Cushing, wife of CBS founder William S. Paley, Mary “Minnie” Cushing, wife of William Astor, and Betsey Cushing, who first married James Roosevelt, and secondly John Hay Whitney.
From Boston, Mayflower descendants include several Brahmin families, such as the Cabots and Saltonstalls, as well as one branch of the Kennedy family. Notable Chicagoans descended from the Pilgrims include Brooks McCormick of International Harvester, the Armours, and the Swifts. California Mayflower descendants include the Crockers of San Francisco and the Chandlers of Los Angeles. Other well-known descendants include decorator Elsie DeWolfe and authors Cleveland Amory and George Plimpton, as well as presidents and presidential families, such as the Adamses, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cousin Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Ulysses S. Grant, and the Bushes.
Mrs. Ashbel P. Fitch (Elizabeth A. Cross), wife of the New York City politician and president of The Trust Company of America, was an early member of the Mayflower Society, and her son, Ashbel P. Fitch, Jr. (the present author’s great-grandfather), thought so highly of his Mayflower antecedents that an early 20th-century cartoon depicted him as stepping from a vessel named Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock.